John Calvin (1509-1564) was one of the most prolific and influential Bible interpreters in Christian history. He wrote a commentary on almost every book of the Bible and he systematized his understanding of the Bible in his magnum opus, Institutes of the Christian Religion.
I was interested in what Calvin had to say about two verses in Genesis 1 which are particularly challenging for interpreters.
6 And God said, “Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.” 7 So God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it. And it was so. (Gen. 1:6-7, NIV)
For it appears opposed to common sense, and quite incredible, that there should be waters above the heaven. Hence some resort to allegory, and philosophize concerning angels; but quite beside the purpose. For, to my mind, this is a certain principle, that nothing is here treated of but the visible form of the world. He who would learn astronomy, and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere. Here the Spirit of God would teach all men without exception . . . Whence I conclude, that the waters here meant are such as the rude and unlearned may perceive. The assertion of some, that they embrace by faith what they have read concerning the waters above the heavens, notwithstanding their ignorance respecting them, is not in accordance with the design of Moses. And truly a longer inquiry into a matter open and manifest is superfluous.
The Challenge Stated
Calvin observes that the meaning of these verses—specifically, the existence of waters above the heaven—appears to contradict common sense. (Of course, that common sense has been influenced by the scientific understanding of his time.)
Allegorical Interpretation Rejected
As a result, he notes, that some resort to allegorical interpretations. I’m not exactly sure what “philosophize concerning angels” means but it may be connected to the allegorical interpretation he previously mentioned. Perhaps some used this passage to teach about the nature of angels. In any case, Calvin dismisses allegorical interpretation by saying that it is “quite beside the purpose.”
Scientifically-Precise Interpretation Rejected
Calvin continues, “He who would learn astronomy, and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere.” So we should not read Genesis 1:6-7 as a scientific manual.
Literal Interpretation Rejected
How about taking the verses literally? A vault (or expanse) exists with waters above it. Calvin rejected this approach as well:
The assertion of some, that they embrace by faith what they have read concerning the waters above the heavens, notwithstanding their ignorance respecting them, is not in accordance with the design of Moses.
According to Calvin, Moses did not intend for us to accept on blind faith the existence of waters above the heaven. I have used “blind faith” because that’s the idea of Calvin’s phrase “notwithstanding their ignorance respecting them.” To paraphrase Calvin: While some assert that we should accept the existence of waters above the heavens even though we know nothing about such waters, that is not what Moses intended. (I had originally misunderstood what Calvin meant here, but Poythress’s article put me on the right track.)
A Phenomenological Interpretation Accepted
So if these verses should not be interpreted allegorically, scientifically, or literally, how should we understand them? According to Calvin, we should recognize that the concept conveyed in these verses is only how “the rude and unlearned may perceive” the physical world. What is written is how uneducated people without the use of scientific tools would have understood “the visible form of the world.” Therefore, we should read it as a basic description of the world as it appeared to ancient, uneducated people. And in this sense, the text is still accurate because despite our scientific knowledge the world still appears the same way to us—water seems to come from above.
Calvin believed the “expanse” (or vault) referred to the air and “the waters above the expanse” referred to the clouds. I think there are challenges to that interpretation which I explain here, but it does fit with his “certain principle.” “For, to my mind, this is a certain principle, that nothing is here treated of but the visible form of the world.”
But why would such basic and uninformed ideas be conveyed in sacred Scripture? Because if God’s Spirit was communicating an accurate view of astronomy in the text, the teaching would have been limited to a select few who could grasp it. But because he wanted to “teach all men without exception,” God’s Spirit conveyed things in ways that corresponded with how uneducated people understood them.